- Historic Sites
Isaac Singer And His Wonderful Sewing Machine
An erratic genius and his sober-sided partner made their product a household necessity and built fortunes which their numerous progeny have spent in ways both beneficent and bizarre
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
In the offices of I. M. Singer & Co., Edward Clark was understandably scandalized. For months he had been seeking general acceptance of the sewing machine by offering it to community leaders—parsons and teachers—at half price. And this was his reward. He sent off one stinging letter of rebuke after another to his chastened partner. When the Civil War broke out, Clark seemed almost to blame that cataclysm, too, on Singer. “Business is pretty much at a standstill,” he wrote. “I am suffering for all the large public show of wealth which you made in 1859 and ’60. It was industriously spread abroad that the firm was rich. Now all who are rich are expected to be patriotic and to give liberally. … I am called on many times a day to subscribe and am obliged to refuse.”
Soon after his return to America in 1861, Singer was served with papers by counsel for Mary Ann Sponsler; this time she was suing him for divorce. It was a curious case: a woman who had lived with him intermittently for a quarter century, who had borne him ten children, yet to whom he had never been married, suing for divorce. Her grounds were that Singer had lived with her as his common-law wife for seven months after his divorce from Maria Haley, and in her complaint she made it clear that she had been brooding powerfully for some time over Singer’s iniquities. He was, she declared, “a most notorious profligate”; she had concluded, moreover, that “a more dissolute man never lived in a civilized country.” This was drawing a very long bow, but apparently the judge agreed with her, for he awarded her $8,000 a year as temporary alimony—a record for the timepending a permanent settlement. In a commendable effort to save himself still greater notoriety should the suit be prosecuted further, Singer settled out of court: he bought and furnished her a house in a8th Street, paid her lawyers’ fees, and gave her $500 in a lump sum and $50 a week for life or for so long as she should not marry. Then he wrote a crestfallen and characteristically illiterate letter to his partner: Mr. Clark, dear sir, My private afairs (though justly merited) hangs heavly upon me and my soul sicends [sickens] at the prospects befor me and for the well fare of all conserned try to make my load of grief as light as posabl. …
This done, Singer retired again to Europe.
In France, he found, matters were managed differently and, he considered, rather better. He stopped at a pension in Paris owned by the English-born widow of a Frenchman. This lady, Mme Pamela Boyer, had a daughter—intelligent, attractive, tactful, and gay. Her name was Isabella, and neither she nor her mother knew of a reason why she should not become the rich American’s mistress. And so not only love but also a measure of peace came to the distracted Singer. For Isabella Boyer seems, altogether, to have been a remarkably able woman. When they came to America in 1863 (Singer had learned that Mary Ann Sponsler had secretly married, which obliged him to come to a new settlement with her), Isabella promptly endeared herself to all of Isaac’s children, whether of the left hand or the right; moreover, though Isaac had been divorced, she somehow managed to inveigle an Episcopal rector into solemnizing her union with him.
But this belated access of respectability did not suffice to appease Edward Clark. Too long had the partners rasped on each other; in July, 1863, they rancorously agreed to dissolve the partnership. I. M. Singer & Co. became The Singer Manufacturing Company, but, at Isaac’s stipulation, neither was permitted to be president of the new corporation so long as the other should live. There were, however, compensations. Of an original capitalization of 5,000 shares priced nominally at $100 apiece, Clark and Singer each held 2,075; the balance they sold (at $200 apiece) to seventeen officers and employees of the company. The first dividend was declared in October, and within five years those who had paid $200 a share for their stock had gotten $225 in dividends. The golden flood was still only a trickle; the company has never skipped a dividend. One share in 1863 had become by 1958, through splits and stock dividends, 900 shares, worth about $36,000 at the current market price of about $40 a share, during which long time it had paid cash dividends of $131,340.
By the end of the Civil War the corporation began to expand in earnest. By 1867 the first foreign factory had been built, near Glasgow; and already the Singer salesman, America’s first world-wide commercial ambassador, was pressing his obstinate finger on the doorbells of the world. Everywhere he carried the Singer name; everywhere he enhanced his own reputation for pertinacity. He was incredibly competitive: once, when a Singer representative shot and killed a Wheeler #38; Wilson rival in a frontier saloon near Tacoma, Washington, he found he had gone too far, for he was lynched. Jokes (many of them, to our sophisticated ears, unbearably corny) grew up around the Singer salesman and his product as, two generations later, they would grow up around the Tin Lizzie. Thus:
“Why is a Singer Sewing Machine like a kiss?”
“Because it seams so good.”
On its centennial, not long ago, The Singer Manufacturing Company was able to hand out instruction booklets in 54 different languages, boast of more than 100,000,000 machines sold, point to fifteen factories —seven in the United States and the others scattered over Europe and South America—and glory in 5,000 Singer sewing centers all over the world.